Where: William Head Institution, 6000 William Head Rd., Metchosin
When: Opens Friday, continues to Nov. 10
Tickets: $20 (available at ticketrocket.org or My Chosen Cafe, 4480 Happy Valley Rd. No one under the age of 19 is permitted in the prison.)
Bronywn Steinberg is an experienced actress. Still, she felt a few butterflies about her latest role.
Steinberg performs in a stage adaptation of The Hobbit, opening Friday.
What makes the show unusual is that it's mounted by William Head on Stage, the long-running inmate troupe at William Head Institution.
The actress, who moved here recently from Ottawa, recalled early rehearsals at the minimum-security prison, located on a picturesque Metchosin peninsula.
"The first few times, and especially the first time, you can't help but be curious. You think, 'I wonder what they did? Am I safe?' " Steinberg said.
The Hobbit is adapted from J.R.R. Tolkien's 1937 novel by Kate Rubin, who also directs the show. Steinberg is one of three "outside" actresses who journey to William Head several times a week to rehearse in its gymnasium.
The 17-member cast plays 30-plus characters from the book, including Bilbo the hobbit, the menacing Gollum and Gandalf the wizard.
Steinberg has the dual roles of Balin the dwarf and Ethlinn, an elf. Any fears she had about performing in prison soon dissipated.
Inmate actors, keen to keep their program running, make the safety of outsiders a priority, she says.
"You couldn't be safer anywhere," Steinberg said. "They would never want to jeopardize any of that."
The Hobbit is the 51st show to be produced by WHOS, now in its 31st year.
The program has a colourful history. In 2011, Stephen Reid, the writer and former Stopwatch Gang member who was convicted of a 1999 bank robbery in Victoria, performed in Gormenghast (this year, he served as an on-site chauffeur for actors in The Hobbit).
In 1995, a transsexual inmate made his acting debut in Euripides' The Bacchae. In 1983, the troupe staged One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest at the McPherson Playhouse under police guard. In 1981, an inmate escaped during a run of Dracula - he used a prop coffin as a boat to flee and was caught 18 months later.
Rubin said she'd originally envisioned directing a British farce at William Head. She opted instead for The Hobbit, which she'd previously adapted for a teen acting program.
Inmate actors have enjoyed working on the show, Rubin says. For them, the playful aspects of theatre help loosen the constraints of prison life. And The Hobbit contains plot elements that resonate. "There's commentary about who's guarding who, who's in prison now," she said.
The outside team collaborating with inmates includes Carole Klemm, a prominent set designer who's worked with the Belfry Theatre and Manitoba Theatre Centre, and Timothy Gosley, a noted puppeteer who portrayed Basil Bear for the Canadian version of Sesame Street.
Steinberg says she's noticed changes in the behaviour of some prisoners over the past month. One inmate initially had to be coaxed to take an extra part in the show.
"Now he's right there for everything, he's ready to volunteer with anything ... I really feel he's blossoming through the whole thing."
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